Isolation and game design.

by failnaut

space concept

The means by which you can craft an interactive experience, to reach out and touch someone else through video games, and tell them what it’s like to feel alone in a crowded room, feels like an insurmountable obstacle. To take someone into a universe you created and leave them, abandon them in a world they don’t understand, one that scares them, that upsets them, and step back and hope to god they understand that sensation, because the entire game hinges on that feeling. If you fuck it up, if people just see it as another videogame, you’ve failed. Because you’re not reaching them. There’s no dialogue.

So what happens then?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt completely and utterly alone. A monster in the skin of a child, an adult, a salaried coworker with fire behind his eyes. I’ve felt rejected, misunderstood, alone, confused, upset, obsessive, rash. But primarily alone. Living in London doesn’t do a lot to lessen that sensation. This isn’t a city where the man you see at the bus stop every day is someone you have a conversation with. Headphones in, head down, drum and bass pounding, you tread the same path and you forage for yourself in the way you know how. Maybe you’re a writer. Maybe you’re a developer. But primarily, you’re alone.

It’s such a hard thing to communicate, I think. People often feel somewhat confused by it. “But you’re at a party, and your friends are here, and they love you.” You nod. “I know.” There’s nothing to be said at that point, I find. Communicating with other people who feel isolated is similarly difficult, because you’re reaching out to someone who doesn’t know now to reach out and make that connection – the same as you don’t.

Currently, I’m playing World of Warcraft by myself. I’m not a member of a guild, I don’t run dungeons with anyone (not even random folks, this time around). When I max out, my intention is to solo raid content. That’s right – I’m going to spend my time completing content designed for large groups of people by myself. At the same time I think about guilds, and I think that’s what my feeling of isolation means to me – that combination of desperately wanting to be around or with other people, but realising that isolation just feels more natural, easier, because there’s no mask to wear.

As I launch myself into my next project, finally taking the plunge and starting work on something I’m going to put a price tag on, I’m thinking about how dark and different it is from the other stuff I’ve done. I’ve never gone out of my way to indulge the really morbid aspects of my creative mind before, and digging into this is really quite liberating. I want to be able to provide people with an experience where they just feel completely immersed in a series of dark corridors and darker rooms, knowing how it feels to stand on the lip of the pitch black and willingly plunge yourself into it, much as I do, outside videogames.

Currently, I’m working on a game set on the Moon. I’m fascinated by the Moon. I’m terrified of walking down a long escalator, and yet I know that the defining experience of my life would be to do what I enjoyed so much in Mass Effect – to land on the Moon, look up, and see the Earth. To look back on my homeworld and let the awe brought on by our size relative to outer space sweep over me the way it does whenever I look at the stars. For me, going to the Moon represents life, and death. It’s a terrifyingly risky, scary, cold, dead place. There is nothing there. So to remain on that surface, by yourself, with no way of leaving, means you’ve got to confront some pretty harsh realities and make a decision about how you’re going to survive in that place.

For me, that ties into what depression feels like. To know that you’re as low as you can go without being dead, and to then take the steps you need to take to survive. Sometimes, the feelings that come crashing down on you can do so with such pressure it’s all you can do to raise your head and look at the person talking to you, let alone listen to them. Feelings like that are a personally relevant to me. I’ve found that writing and creating things have been ways to try and communicate how I felt in a way that meant I could engage without actually engaging. To communicate that I felt fucked up, and that I didn’t quite identity with the rest of the human race, without having to actually put it into words, because even typing it is emotionally difficult for me.

2014, for me, is a year of determined work. Of moving forward. My projects are a reflection of that. My career choices, and the way in which I am attempting to structure my life, are a reflection of that. 2013 was the most difficult year of my life, and whenever I think back on it I feel genuine surprise at the fact that I survived. But I survived because I made some choices and endured. It’s a choice I want to offer to people who engage with the work I do. To show people that there are no absolutes, that shades of grey are what stop people from endlessly relying on black and white.

I’m going to try and write a lot more, as I find it really helps me clarify thoughts and it’d be good to not solely associate the act of writing with work. I keep failing to keep this blog regularly updated, but I think that’s something I’d like to change this year. Please feel free to drop your thoughts into the comments, or hit me up on Twitter. —fn